(or at least, my personal take on it!)
Over the last couple of months, I've been interviewing candidates for a couple of different roles at Microsoft at a rate of almost one a week. Interviewing is definitely something of a skill, both for the interviewee and for the interviewer. A good interviewer doesn't ask random questions, even if it seems that way - they're trying to get a candidate to reveal enough about their character, skills, temperament and awareness that they can determine whether they'd be a good hire for the team.
I enjoy the mental stimulus of being on either side of the desk for an interview: as an interviewer, the challenge of trying to get through the mask that people sometimes put up to find out where someone's real talents and weaknesses; as an interviewee, the process of finding out more about yourself and the areas where you personally need to develop. Either way, it's a process of continual learning.
One thing that surprises me is how many potential new hires fall into the same "traps". I don't try to catch people out or set trick questions, but I see people who don't do themselves justice in the way they present themselves. Here are a few ways I see people shooting themselves in the foot, based not on any individual candidate but a broad aggregation of the perhaps 15-20 interviews that I've conducted in the last year:
- Stock Microsoft interview questions often start with the phrase "Tell me about a time when..." The goal of questions like these is usually to find out more about your actual performance in a real-world scenario, rather than your best-case performance in a hypothetical situation. It's interesting though how often I get answers that focus entirely on the project or organization someone has worked on, rather than their individual contribution. Of course, we're looking for people who work well in a team setting, but telling me about a project that you worked on that was particularly successful doesn't give me any indication of whether you were the star performer that turned it around or whether you were a knuckle-dragger that just happened to be associated with the project. Tell me what things you did, what impact they had, what you learnt from the experience, rather than making me want to hire someone else from your project team!
- Show passion for both what you've done in the past and what you're interviewing for. I want to see evidence that you care about the job enough that it's not just another notch on your resume. Even if you're historically a star performer that we'd be lucky to hire, I want to be convinced by you personally, not just by your performance on paper. Do some reading around the area; if you know the interviewer's names, search for them on MSN Search (or Google if you really must!) and find out what their interests are, what they've written about, and what they have a passion for - not to flatter them, but to demonstrate your commitment to the role.
- If I ask you where you're weak, it's not a trick question. It's amazing how few people are prepared to own up to any flaws at all. Sometimes people do this fake thing where they highlight a strength as a weakness ("people say to me that I care too much!"). I don't believe that you're completely perfect - really, I don't! What I want to see is that you're aware of your limitations, you're not so arrogant to presume that you can't learn anything or accept feedback, and that you have the ability to reflect on your own character. Give me something - even if it's just that you're not a morning person!
- Lastly, demonstrate vision - share your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions. Tell me where you see this job as a stepping stone to - where you'd like to be in five years time. I want to see that you have a sense of the strategic - that you understand the industry, that you have knowledge that stretches beyond the specific requirements of the role you're interviewing for.
In general terms, it's in both the interviewer and the interviewee's interest to determine whether the person is a "good hire" or a "bad hire". No matter how much you want a job coming into an interview, pretending to be someone you're not (more technical than you really are, more interested in a certain type of work than you really are) to land a position doesn't lead to satisfaction in the long run, when you wind up getting bad performance reviews because your skills just don't mesh with the requirements of a role. On the other hand, if you can find a job that really matches your interests, skills and goals, you'll have great fun doing it and naturally excelling in it.